Stand Up, Speak Out


Art by Olivia Lusala

Theo Prineas and Zoë Miller

Though the afternoon began hushed, the discussion that followed was anything but quiet. One by one, teenagers trickled into the library meeting room. They were offered a composition notebook at the door.

Stand Up, Speak Out: Teens Talk Race is a workshop hosted by the Iowa Youth Writing Project geared towards stimulating discussion of race and contemporary issues between teenagers.

“If you give young adults the time and space to practice conversations about race and shape their vocabulary around it, then I think we can see young adults from a place of strength. They know a lot,” Rossina Liu, a graduate of the University of Iowa nonfiction writing program, said.

The discussion was led by a diverse panel made up by Kingsley Botchway, Liu, and Jason Daniel-Ulloa. Students were able to ask questions as well as reflect upon what they want to see in the future.

“I want to see change. More change in our schools and our community. Where our community is now, things could be better, and where America is right now could be better,” Destanie Gibson ‘20 said. “Our world is going downhill when it should be going up.”

The IYWP focuses on enfolding youth into the dialogue of Iowa City. The Stand Up Speak Out workshop is the first of its kind offered to high school students. Previously, it was held for junior high and elementary school students.

“[In the past] we didn’t want to step on any toes. We wanted to make [these workshops] a gentle experience for everyone, but it didn’t map as cleanly onto [students’] real lives as they wanted it to,” Mallory Hellman, director of the IYWP, said. “The first thing that came to my mind was to talk about actual issues.”

The program uses writing as a way to help youth spread their voices. Writing prompts from the workshop included, “When was the first time you noticed race and how has race affected your life?” The students at the event were also shown “Dear White America,” a slam poem by Danez Smith and then encouraged to write their own letter.

“Writing is a human right. I think the way we teach it in a classroom, it’s not often as a human right, but as a skill set that you need to get through high school, rather than as a form of expression and exploration,” Liu said.

Liu, along with other panelists, guided this discussion to help students brainstorm solutions in their lives.

“[Fighting racism] has to start on a systemic level,” Liu said. “It has to start in the place where people have power, where they can create a curriculum that reflects a range of diversity in terms of talents, diversity of race, intersexual identities.”

By using the wide range of their writing and artistic talents, these students are trying to propagate diversity in the Iowa City community.

“I have to focus on what I can do to make this world a better place and what can I do to make myself a better person,” Maya Djalali-Gomez ‘20 said.